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Old 11-14-2013, 10:24 AM
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Sokolich letter on GWB closing

Fort Lee mayor asserts GWB bridge closures had 'punitive overtones'
Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger By Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger
on November 13, 2013 at 6:45 AM, updated November 13, 2013 at 12:20 PM

FORT LEE — For commuters, it was a horror story.

The local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed without warning for almost a week in September, infuriating drivers who endured long delays from traffic backed up into local streets.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said it was merely part of a traffic study. But a letter written by Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to a high-ranking Port Authority official raises questions about the reason for the closures. While others say several factors suggest the closures might have had to do with the mayor's failure to support Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election campaign.

What the mysterious closure to the world’s busiest bridge was really all about is likely to get more attention at this afternoon’s monthly Port Authority meeting.

Borough streets were turned into parking lots on the Monday morning of Sept. 9, when traffic cones blocked off two out of three access lanes to the bridge fed by a ramp from Fort Lee. Unlike other closures, this one came without notice from the bi-state agency, with local police, municipal officials and commuters all taken by surprise. The lanes were reopened Friday, Sept. 13.

Two months after the closures, suspicions that they were politically motivated have once again been fueled by the surfacing of an internal document related to the episode. The Sept. 12 letter sent by Sokolich while the closings were still in effect to Christie’s top appointee at the bi-state agency, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni. The letter expresses the mayor’s belief that the closures were "punitive," and asks that they be lifted, "quietly, uneventfully and without political fanfare."


A copy of the letter was obtained by The Star-Ledger after reports of a Sept. 13 email sent by Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, which first cast doubt on the agency’s official explanation that the closures were related to a "traffic safety study."

The email by Foye, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, directed bridge managers to lift the closures immediately, saying they had violated agency policy and possibly the law, and had jeopardized public safety as well as the agency’s "credibility."

After his email surfaced, Foye told reporters that the agency was investigating the closures.

The state Senate majority leader, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), said Foye's email, Sokolich's letter and the unusual circumstances surrounding the closure support the growing suspicion that the mayor and his constituents were being punished for his failure to endorse Christie. Weinberg has vowed to ensure that the matter is not forgotten, and has introduced a resolution that would grant the Senate state government committee subpoena power to investigate the closures. Weinberg’s concerns have been echoed by Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who chairs the Assembly State Government Committee.

Citizens groups have also begun weighing in.

"This was a major closure that commuters, local officials and law enforcement were not made aware of in a timely way, and the circumstances of the closure still aren’t clear," read a statement from the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group.

Steve Carrellas, the N.J. delegate to the National Motorists Association, wondered why the heavily favored Christie would need the endorsement of a Democratic mayor from a relatively small borough.

"On the other hand," he said, "the lack of an explanation as to why it happened without the normal notifications and advanced warnings also doesn’t make any sense, and only leads people to believe that there’s something fishy."

A point repeatedly made by analysts of Christie’s 22-point margin of victory over Democrat Barbara Buono last week was that it indicated his relatively strong support across the board, a plus if Christie were to pursue the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.


A spokesman for Christie, Michael Drewniak, said the governor had nothing to do with the lane closures.

"The governor of the state of New Jersey does not involve himself in traffic studies," Drewniak said.

The Port Authority did not respond to requests for comment on the letter or an update on the status of the investigation of the closures.

A story in the Wall Street Journal last week quoted anonymous sources saying the closures were ordered by David Wildstein, a Christie patronage hire in 2010 who serves directly under Baroni. Wildstein, a former Republican mayor of Livingston and editor of the influential political blog, politickernj.com, holds the title of director of interstate capital projects, though his influence extends to areas including public relations strategies.

Wildstein did not respond to request for comment.

In the mayor’s letter to Baroni, Sokolich wrote: "Try as we may to understand the rationale without the benefit of a response from the Port Authority, we are reaching the conclusion that there are punitive overtones associated with this initiative … What other conclusions could we possibly reach?"

In an interview, Sokolich declined to comment on the letter. Observers said neither he nor his constituents have anything to gain from publicly criticizing an agency that wields so much influence in his community.

Weinberg said she was particularly concerned by a line in the letter in which Sokolich writes, "Many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority Police Officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as Mayor, recently made."

The Port Authority Police Benevolent Association rejected the notion that any of its members would allow themselves to be used, willingly or otherwise, in such a retaliatory scheme. PBA President Paul Nunziato, whose union was one of the first labor groups to endorse Christie last year, released a wry statement equating the scheme with far-fetched New Jersey folklore involving a famously vanished labor leader and a deceased real estate baroness.

If anyone believed there really was such a scheme, Nunziato said through a spokesman, “then I would suggest that we’re going to find Jimmy Hoffa’s body on the Leona Helmsley property in Fort Lee.”

Editor's note: This story was amended to reflect the mayor's position on the closures.

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